Janice Parson opened the door to Katherine, greeting her with a meek smile. “Good morning, Katherine.”
Katherine gave her a tender smile in return. “Morning, Janice.”
It was the first time she had been to the Parson’s home, and she looked around. It was warm and welcoming, printed wallpaper that made her feel as if she were in a spring garden surrounded her in the entry way.
She led the way down a short hallway to a sitting room, whose only occupants were a white leather sofa, two matching chairs, a mahogany desk, and a bookcase. The room was paneled in a dark, elegant wood, giving it a handsome look.
“This was Harold’s office. He was a dedicated teacher and often brought papers home to work on.” She took a deep breath and let it out. “He used to say children were the key to our future, and it was up to us to make sure they knew how to safeguard it.” She shook her head. “He never once complained about the long, unpaid hours it took for him to do a good job as a teacher.”
“I admire the hard work teachers put in. I can only imagine the grueling hours it must take to be an effective teacher.”
Katherine expected her to ask her to have a seat, but instead, she walked to the door. “We’ll meet in the living room. This room upsets Ariel. I only wanted you to see it.”
As Katherine made her way to the door, she noticed a picture on the desk. “May I?” she asked. Janice nodded. The picture displayed Ariel, and a man, whom Katherine assumed was Harold Parson. Both were laughing, not a posed studio shot, but a candid, natural pose. They appeared to be on a boat, as each of them held a fishing pole. Love, peace, and fun showed evident in each of their eyes.
“Last year’s fishing trip,” Janice offered. “They’ve done it every year since Ariel turned five. They couldn’t tell me what the joke was. Every time either of them tried, they’d start laughing so hard they couldn’t speak.”
“It’s a wonderful picture,” Katherine said, placing it back on the desk.
Janice started walking. Katherine followed.
Janice nodded. “I’ll get Ariel.” She pointed toward the end of the hall. “The living room’s that way.”
She wandered down the hallway, finding more pictures of the family, all of them contained, laughing, happy people. What happened here? How could an entire family be so full of love one moment and killing the next? She touched her abdomen, saying a silent prayer that this kind of tragedy would never inflict their lives.
Janice returned a moment later carrying a tray with iced tea and glasses on it. She saw Katherine staring at the pictures but briskly walked by, not giving them a second glance. Was it too painful? She followed her, and a moment later, she sat on a sofa, waiting anxiously in the Parson’s living room for Ariel to descend the stairs. Janice sat across from her, crying in a tissue. “What do you want to see Ariel about?” she asked.
“I would rather wait for Ariel,” Katherine said.
“It’s been extremely hard on her,” Janice said. “She was close to her father…at least at one time she was.”
“That’s kind of what I want to talk about.”
Katherine caught movement from the corner of her eye. She turned her head to see Ariel coming down the stairs, slow as a snail. Her eyes were dark hollows, her face a mere shadow of the youth it should be. Her appearance so unlike the laughing girl in the photos that hung everywhere in the house. It shocked Katherine, and she made a small sound of surprise.
Janice cast a pitiful glance her way. “It’s shocking to me, too.”
Janice looked questioningly at Katherine, and Katherine realized how absurd the question sounded. “I meant—she didn’t look this bad last week.”
Janice nodded. “She hasn’t spoken or eaten since he died. She has barely moved from her room. She doesn’t even seem to care that she’s about to stand trial for his murder.”
Ariel took a seat beside her mother, stared blankly ahead, bypassing Katherine’s eyes. Janice instinctively put an arm around her shoulder, pulling her against her. Tears filled Janice’s eyes. “The thing is—I can’t even grieve for him because my daughter needs me so much.”
“Ariel,” Katherine tried but got only a catatonic stare. She tried again, “Ariel, can you hear me?” She did not say anything but blinked. Katherine looked at Janice. “This may seem like a stupid question, but has she seen the therapist the psychiatrist recommended?”
She nodded. “I called her right after Harold’s death. She seems to think she’s in shock, and it will wear off.” She brushed the hair back from Ariel’s forehead. “I tend to agree with her.”
Katherine took out her notepad. “I need to ask you a few questions about your husband’s behavior.”
“What kinds of questions?”
Katherine glanced at Ariel, wondering if it would be better if she were not in the room. “Had you noticed any significant changes in his behavior lately? A change in demeanor perhaps, memory…”
A tear came to Janice’s eye, and she wiped it away. “I begged him to go to the doctor, but he kept saying he was fine. I begged and begged, but it did no good. He wouldn’t listen.”
Katherine’s heart skipped a beat. “What did he do?”
“At first it was just headaches. Then he started getting hand tremors. A couple months ago, I found him in the attic in the middle of the night. He was sitting in his Santa suit and singing Christmas carols. He slurred his words so badly that I thought he was drunk. He stumbled down the attic stairs and back to bed when I convinced him Christmas was still six months away. I was so angry because he had been drinking.” She grew silent. “Only now, I wonder if he was.”
“Did your husband ever get violent with you?”
“No. He lost his temper a few times, and once a few weeks ago, he threw a pitcher of water at a fly that had been bothering him, but never violent.”
Watching Ariel very closely, Katherine took a deep breath and asked, “How about with Ariel?”
“No!” Janice cried emphatically, even as Ariel stiffened in her arms. She looked down at her. “Ariel?”
“Has Ariel had any unusual marks or unexplained accidents lately?”
“She broke her arm at the skating rink a few months back, and she hit her head on the garage door and had to have sutures above her eyebrow.” She pulled back Ariel’s hair, showing Katherine proof. “She still has the scar.”
“Are you sure it was the skating rink?”
Her face grew hot with the accusation. “My husband was not a child abuser.”
“I didn’t say he was,” Katherine said.
Katherine shifted in her seat, leaned forward and pointed at the pitcher of iced tea Janice had brought earlier. “Do you mind?” Janice shook her head, and Katherine refilled her glass. She took a drink and said, “Janice, Dr. Weir, the coroner, did an autopsy on your husband. She found a frontal lobe tumor.” Janice’s eyebrows came together in a confused expression. “You’re saying my husband was ill?”
“Very. According to Dr. Weir, this tumor would most likely have caused your husband to behave erratically.” She paused, letting her ponder the idea. Then she looked at Ariel and asked, “What happened to the dog, Ariel?”
Ariel locked gazes with Katherine and the tears slipped down her cheeks as she called the dog’s name over and over again, taking deep, gulping breaths between each name, “Betsy—Betsy—Betsy.”
“Aw, baby—no,” Janice cried, tears slipping down her cheek as she rocked and cradled her daughter.
Katherine waited for them, and when the sobbing had died to whimpers, she took out a card and handed it to Janice. “Take her here. It’s an inpatient treatment facility. Ask to see Dr. Lowen. He knows all about Ariel. He’s expecting you.” She rose. “I can find my own way out.”
From there she went to Mr. Parson’s work. In his working career, he had been a teacher and a football coach at the junior high school. The same one his daughter had attended just two short years ago.
She walked in and asked to see Mr. Seymour, the principal. “He’s out on sick leave,” the receptionist informed her. “Mrs. Carson is the interim principal.”
“May I see her?” Katherine asked.
“What’s it about?”
Katherine got the impression that Miss Waxum was more nosey than efficient, but she obliged her. “I’d like to talk to her about one of your teachers, Harold Parson.”
She scowled. “Ex-teacher, you mean.”
She leaned close and indicated Katherine should do the same. She smacked gum in Katherine’s ear and jumped back. “Sorry,” she said.
“Penny!” A sharp voice said.
Penny and Katherine both jumped and turned toward the voice. A smartly dressed woman came toward them, extending her hand to Katherine. “Good morning, Ms. Winters.” Katherine looked surprised, and the woman said, “I recognize you from the paper. I’m Tina Carson, the acting principal. Come on in.” She gave Penny a sharp look and walked away. “I’m sorry about Penny. Apparently, she leads a boring life and likes to gossip to spice it up.”
Katherine laughed it off. “It’s okay.”
She indicated a chair, and Katherine sat in it. “How may I help you?”
“I have some questions about Harold Parson.”
She sighed and shook her head. “It’s just awful what’s happened to that family. It just goes to show that you never know about a person.” She shook her head again. “We all liked him so much. It was devastating when we had to let him go.” She made a tsking sound with her mouth. “And that poor little girl…”
“What about her?”
She leaned forward, conspiratorially, making Katherine wonder just who was the real gossip. “She went to school here, you know. They were so close those two—father and daughter, I mean—but then I saw them in the grocery store a few months back, and he had her by the arm, just dragging her through the store. She was screaming for him to let her go, pulling on her arm as hard as he could.” She grimaced. “Then I heard the loud snap and knew he had broken it. I told Mr. Seymour about it, and he fired him.”
“He fired him?” Katherine was surprised. She had not known Harold Parson was unemployed. Janice certainly had not said anything about it. “That must have been hard for the family. I wonder how Mrs. Parson took the news.”
She shook her head again. She was starting to appear as one of those bobble dolls. “I don’t think he ever told her.”
“Why do you say that?” Katherine asked.
“She called here the day before the shooting. She said her husband was late coming home, and she wondered if he was still in the classroom.”
“Did you tell her?”
Her head shook again, accompanied by a look of indignation. “It wasn’t my place,” she said. She sat up, rod straight, taking on an air of propriety.
Katherine jotted some notes and then stared intently. “Had he ever shown signs of violence before?”
She shook her head without a second thought. “Absolutely not. He was one of the best teachers we ever had. All the kids adored him. That is why I was so surprised to see him treating his daughter so badly. I’m sure if the school board found out about it, they would have taken his Teacher of the Year Award away from him.”
“He was the teacher of the year?”
Mrs. Carson nodded her head. “He was. The school board elected him in 2006. But, as I said, I’m sure they would have taken it back if they had known who he truly was.”
Katherine tried to smile. She was getting a deeper glimpse of this man’s life and growing more saddened by the moment. She wished she could tell Mrs. Carson about the tumor, wished she could explain away this man’s sudden behavior, but she knew she could not. Client confidentiality was just that. She would have to read about it in the paper, just like everyone else. She stood and extended her hand. “Thank you, Mrs. Carson. You’ve been a great help.”
“My pleasure, Ms. Winters. Will you please extend my sympathies to the family?”
That night in bed as John lay beside her, she poured out the story to him.
He soothed her by rubbing his finger gently up and down her arm. “It was so sad, John, watching that poor little girl. She’s been through so much, and poor Mr. Parson, living like that, not being able to control his actions. I keep wondering if he knew what was happening to him.”
“I wonder why Ariel didn’t say anything to her mother.”
“She must have been too scared.”
“Did you find out what happened to the dog?”
“No. Perhaps it will come out later, but I’m not pushing for it. Nevertheless, it’s irrelevant.”
The phone rang, and Katherine reached over and picked up the receiver. “Hello.” Nobody answered, so again, she said, “Hello.” Finally, she heard breathing and then the line went dead. She slammed down the phone.
“Who was it?” John asked.
She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. He’s just trying to intimidate us.”
She lay back down but could not concentrate on anything except the phone call. She lay awake long after she heard John’s even breathing as he drifted into deep sleep. She burrowed deeper against him, shivering. She did not sleep much that night.
On August 2, she walked into the courthouse, dodging reporters. She was glad she was able to talk Janice out of bringing Ariel to the meeting. John walked beside her, steering her clear. “How the hell did they find out about this?” she asked. “It’s not even an official trial. It’s only a meeting with the judge to see if there’s even going to be a trial.”
“You know reporters, Katherine, and if you remember, they were there the day Mrs. Parson begged you to take the case.”
“Certainly, they must know they won’t be allowed into the judge’s chambers.”
“They just want to be near the action.”
“Ms. Winters,” a reporter said, chasing after her. “May we have a minute of your time?”
Katherine looked back over her shoulder and nearly ran to get away from them, then she changed her mind and stopped mid-step, turning on the triumphantly smiling reporter. She thrust the microphone in front of Katherine. “May we get a statement, Ms. Winters?”
Katherine smiled. “I’ll give you a statement if you promise to leave the Parson family alone.”
“Sure,” the reporter said flippantly.
“Okay,” Katherine said. “The Parson family has been through enough. If you any decency in you, you would leave them alone. That’s my statement.” She turned and disappeared into the judge’s chambers, dragging John with her.
“Well, Ms. Winters,” the judge said. “You’re a tad late.”
“I’m sorry, Your Honor. I’ve been dodging reporters for the past forty-five minutes. If I find out who tipped them off, I’m going to give them a piece of my mind.”
Beside her, Blair Bryant grinned.
Katherine glared at him and rolled her eyes. “I should have known.”
The judge narrowed her eyes at the assistant district attorney. “Mr. Bryant, I hope you don’t intend on making a mockery of this case.”
Blair took on a shocked expression, placing one hand over his heart—as if swearing himself in. “I take this case in complete seriousness, Your Honor.”
Judge Whitcomb sighed. “Let’s just hear what you’ve got,” she said.
Blair went through a half-hour prattle about the injustice of a teenage girl who could so callously take the life of a man who had loved, fed, and clothed her all her life. Moreover, how it was just like the youth of today to have such disrespect for their elders, and their community, as to waste precious tax dollars on a pointless trial. Also, keeping that in mind, shouldn’t Ms. Winters be encouraged to advise her client to plead guilty and save the taxpayers’ money?
“Are you done?” Katherine asked, rolling her eyes at Blair.
“No,” he said. “Can you make her respect me?” he asked Judge Whitcomb.
John put his hand over his mouth to keep from laughing.
Judge Whitcomb looked at Katherine. “Can you play nice, counselor?”
“Who, me?” Katherine asked. “I’ll play nice if he plays nice.”
“Good,” the judge said. “We’ll all play nicely together. What have you got, counselor?” she asked Katherine.
Katherine pulled out her report and handed a copy to the judge, and just to “be nice” gave one to Blair. Then she pulled out the autopsy report and handed them each a copy as well. “I’m sure you have already received these reports,” she said, “because it says here on the bottom the MEs office sent you one.” Judge Whitcomb nodded. Katherine could tell from the look on Blair’s face that he had never seen it before.
“I’m embarrassed to say I saw the report come in, but I haven’t had time to read it,” Judge Whitcomb said. “Will you outline it for us?”
“Absolutely,” she said. “According to Dr. Weir, Mr. Parson had a tumor in his frontal lobe, causing him severe headaches, paralysis—”
“So what,” Blair interrupted. “That doesn’t give his daughter the right to kill him.”
“—memory loss, mood swings,” Katherine continued.
“Objection!” Blair screamed. “May I talk here?”
“You had your turn,” Judge Whitcomb said. “This isn’t a free-for-all.”
Blair heaved an exasperated sigh but kept quiet.
“In my report you’ll see that Mr. Parson and Ariel had a unique closeness in that they were ‘friends’ enjoying several, leisure-time activities together—until recently. Mrs. Parson swears that Mr. Parson had been exhibiting sudden, radically aggressive behavior over the past several months, backed up by testimony from the acting principal at the junior high school, where Harold Parson taught. All this would be a strain on anyone, but especially to someone as close to a parent as Ariel was. Ariel’s teachers are willing to testify that she has been exhibiting signs of abuse over the past several months. In addition to their testimony, I can prove that they have been concerned enough to log complaints with the school administration.”
Katherine paused, giving the judge—and Blair—time to glance over the report and catch up to where she was. She sighed. “I don’t know what happened between Harold and Ariel Parson.” She shook her head. “Those two may be the only ones who will ever know, but what I do know is that Ariel Parson did not ‘callously’ shoot her father. She needs help, not prison. I believe Mr. Parson was so negatively affected by his brain tumor that he started suffering fits of violent rage, taking it out on Ariel—and the family dog. I believe Mr. Parson’s killing the dog pushed Ariel over the edge, and she snapped.”
Blair clapped. “Brilliant performance, I wanted to order popcorn to go with it.”
“That’s enough, Mr. Bryant,” the judge said.
Judge Whitcomb began perusing both Katherine’s report and the autopsy report. Katherine and Blair both remained silent.
Finally, she sighed. “It makes a compelling argument,” she said, but Katherine could see her hesitating.
“Please tell me you aren’t buying this!” Blair exclaimed. “If you let her go scot-free like this there’s no telling what excuse kids will use for killing their parents.”
Katherine flashed anger. “A man is dead, a woman widowed, and a little girl’s life ripped apart. I hardly call that ‘scot-free’.”
Blair sneered. “What’s the matter, Katherine, can’t stand to lose?”
“Enough, Mr. Bryant,” the judge sighed. “Where is Miss Parson?”
“Her mother checked her into a treatment facility,” Katherine said. “She’s been there for the past week.”
The judge pondered the dilemma. “If I let her off, what kind of message am I sending?” She wondered aloud. “On the other hand, if I lock her up, what kind of monster do I look like?”
Katherine knew better than to open her mouth, so she sat quietly, biting the inside of her mouth to keep from adding things to her plea.
Blair did not know the wisdom of keeping his mouth shut and said, “If you lock her up, you’ll be sending the message of intolerance.”
The judge stared at him with the oddest look on her face. She nodded. “I believe you are correct, Mr. Bryant. I will be sending a message of intolerance.” He smiled. “However, I don’t want to be known as that kind of judge. I don’t believe the law is black and white, never have believed it.” She held up the report Katherine had passed her. “Nobody gets off ‘scot-free’ here, Mr. Bryant. This tragedy has ripped this family to pieces. They can never go back. This is unfair but true. To punish them further would not bring Mr. Parson back, but would only serve to ruin the fragile existence of the remaining victims.” She looked at Katherine. “What are you suggesting?”
Katherine’s hopes soared. “A minimum of one year in a treatment facility, then evaluation to see how Ariel progresses.”
The judge thought for a moment, and then slowly nodded her head. “So be it,” she said and stamped something on Ariel’s file.
Katherine whooped with delight and then caught herself. “Sorry.”
Judge Whitcomb smiled. “I’ll see you back here in one year.”
“Thank you, Your Honor.” She grabbed her briefcase and nearly ran through the door.
“Oh, Ms. Winters,” Judge Whitcomb called. Katherine turned. “Congratulations on the baby—and the wedding,” she added with a chuckle. “And you, too, Mr. Wheaton.”
Katherine grinned. “Thanks.” She grabbed John’s hand and they soared out the door. “Come on, I want to call Janice.”
The reporters pounced on Katherine the minute she hit the corridor. “A statement, please, Ms. Winters,” they all shouted. Katherine stopped and looked at them. Then she smiled. “A young girl is going to get a break today because we have a fair justice system, and a fair judge who isn’t afraid to take a chance on innocence.”
She dashed off, fending off further comments. She raced to the car, John barely keeping up with her. Inside her car, she phoned Janice, who had been waiting anxiously for the judge’s decision. “We won!” Katherine shouted, and sat in silence, smiling as Janice cried tears of joy on the other end of the phone.
When she hung up, she grabbed John by the lapel of his jacket and pulled him to her, kissing him with all the passion she could muster. They did not see Chad, three cars over, but he saw them.